Milo Yiannopoulos has built his reputation on inciting racist harassment against comedian Leslie Jones, targeting and outing trans and undocumented students during his campus speaking tour, and giving speeches with names like “10 Things I Hate About Islam.” These things have earned him, in addition to lucrative speaking opportunities and flattering media profiles, a $250,000 book deal from Simon & Schuster.
But then a video surfaced of Yiannopoulos defending child rape, either as an empty performance or because he meant it, and, well, he promptly lost that deal. The publisher tersely announced on Monday that they had canceled the contract “after careful consideration.”
Roxane Gay, an author who canceled her own book deal with Simon & Schuster as an act of protest and whose release date had been assigned to Yiannopoulos in what she called a retaliatory move, called out the publisher’s cynicism in a statement Monday night:
In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them.
It’s a blunt, fickle calculus. Gay’s comments were a criticism, but you’ll find a more neutral version of the same assessment in business journals advising companies on risk-return trade offs. Capitalism is a market system, not a moral compass, and the wheels of corporate decision-making move slowly—or don’t move at all—when you are triangulating. This was true for the Yiannopoulos storm, and it’s been true of any brand navigating the political tides of the Trump administration.
“The obvious solution for corporations is to say nothing controversial,” James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker around the time that liberals were burning their New Balance sneakers and conservatives were dumping out boxes of Special K over perceived allegiances or defections from the new president. “But in the Trump era a truly neutral position is hard to find.”
Naked self-interest packaged as neutrality is the true north of corporate values, which is why calls for CEOs to be more courageous in this political climate miss the point. Companies are not part of the resistance, either against the Trump administration or hateful sideshows like Yiannopoulos. They are profit-extracting machines. If we're anthropomorphizing, this makes them far closer to sociopaths than comrades in the struggle. So if you want a CEO to take a position, don't appeal to their higher values—exploit their cowardice.
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“In a political situation where you’re taking a stand and pleasing half the population while angering the other half, that is going to be a net losing equation for your reputation,” Steven Callander, a professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explained in a piece on the university’s website weighing the risks and rewards of corporations taking political positions. “With this election, because of the increasing polarization of parties, it just becomes more stark and more costly. You’re not getting as much benefit and you’re getting a lot more pain.”
Callander was writing in early July, when companies like Ford and Apple were declining to sponsor the Republican National Convention, but it applies just as well today. And while staying out of it may often be the safest route, as Surowiecki also noted, Callander warns it’s an option that is becoming increasingly untenable as pressure campaigns from progressives and conservatives become a common tactic.
And even then, it’s still a question of cautious timing, not bravery or clean dedication to a cause.
It was late November when the Kellogg Company announced it would pull its ads from Breitbart, a nativist and racist news site that traffics in conspiracy theories and white nationalist propaganda. The partnership just wasn’t a good fit, according to a spokesperson: “We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company.”
Keep in mind that this was about six months after Breitbart recirculated an Islamophobic conspiracy accusing former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin of being a “Saudi spy” with “deep, inarguable connections” to a “global terrorist entity”; seven months after it called conservative writer Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew”; and about a year to the week after it published a piece arguing that birth control made women “unattractive and crazy.” (But even Breitbart has its limits, apparently: Yiannopoulos resigned on Tuesday, citing his "poor choice of words" in a statement.)
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was among the Silicon Valley executives to meet with the incoming Trump administration back in December. The author of Lean In did not attend any of the national women’s marches held after the inauguration in January, and said nothing about them publicly during the months they were being planned. But come February, after industry publications started taking note of her silence, she said that while it was a personal obligation that kept her from marching, she regretted not showing any kind of open support for millions of women convening to fight for their basic rights and the rights of others.
Earlier this month, the CEO of Uber, a company that has spent the first two months of the Trump administration showing its ass on something of a loop, withdrew from the new president's economic advisory council. Nothing about the fundamentals of the administration had changed—it was still racist, still tantalizingly pro-business—but the optics of aligning with it had.
After sustained public outrage and internal pressure from employees, there had emerged a “perception-reality gap between who people think we are, and who we actually are,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said by way of explanation. (The company tried to communicate as much in its message to angry customers who had deactivated their accounts: “We wanted to let you know that Uber shares your views on the immigration ban: it's unjust, wrong and against everything we stand for as a company. If you want to learn more, click here.")
This kind of pathological executive hedging is a feature, not a bug.
Corporations also tend to have incoherent political narratives, which is another reason that trying to enlist them in a mass movement to resist the Trump agenda is a sucker’s game.
In July, the Ford Motor Company declined to sponsor the Republican National Convention over apparent discomfort with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. (The company had sponsored the 2012 convention.) This came after a few months of tension between Trump and the auto giant. But come January, the election done and behind them, Ford CEO Mark Fields met with the president.
“Walking out of the meeting today, I know I come out with a lot of confidence that the president is very, very serious in making sure the United States economy is going to be strong and have policies—tax, regulatory or trade—to drive that,” Fields said afterwards. “That encourages all of us, as CEOs, as we make decisions going forward. So it’s a very, very positive meeting.”
Less than a week later, the company condemned the administration for its Muslim travel ban: "Respect for all people is a core value of Ford Motor Company, and we are proud of the rich diversity of our company here at home and around the world," Fields and executive chairman Bill Ford said in the joint statement. "That is why we do not support this policy or any other that goes against our values as a company."
It is embarrassing to call something as cynical as this brand posturing “resistance.” So let’s not.
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There is a compelling rhetorical device among those who want to flatter corporations into an anti-Trump stance by using appeals to common values: “History will not remember you well.”
No one wants to be on the wrong side of something that feels so urgent, when basic safety and community cohesion are at stake for so many. But it’s also pretty clear that the long stretch of history, more than enhancing the shame of, say, allegedly collaborating with Nazi Germany, tends to forgive most sins. IBM, which has minimized the role the company and its tabulating machines played in streamlining mass death, continues to hold lucrative government contracts and is worth a shitload of money.
This alone isn’t enough. Like all politics, to really be effective, you have to make it hurt. And that’s a reason for optimism. Brands are not your friends and CEOs with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders are not woke. But resistance movements, particularly those that are as robust and wide-ranging as the one developing in opposition to the Trump administration, can still use them.
As tools, not allies.
At the same time #DeleteUber was trending in late January, Lyft, a gig-economy company that also undermines wages and union cohesion for taxi workers in cities like New York and Philadelphia (and was also still in operation during the temporary work stoppage around JFK), announced it would be making a one-time donation to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was good PR, a satisfying troll of a rival business, and put real money on the line. But as my colleague Molly Osberg noted at the time, this does not make Lyft—or any other tech company who “cherry-picks liberal positions but relies on anti-regulatory labor policies to keep expanding”—a friend to progressives aiming to fight Trump’s agenda on all of its dehumanizing fronts.
Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary under the Obama administration, touched on a similar, though less critical, thread in a comment to Bloomberg: companies like Apple, Google, and Uber have a business stake in putting themselves, however selectively, on the progressive side of some of these issues. For them, it's good business to be on the side of “the United States being a nation of the Statue of Liberty” that supports “an open and tolerant global system.”
Similarly, Callendar, the Stanford professor, identifies that sometimes the obvious political winds—this time in the case of North Carolina’s anti-trans public accommodation law—minimize the risk of taking a public political position:
… national retailers seem to have decided that the progressive pressures are the safer option… So, there are surely people out there who now think a little less of the NBA for threatening to move the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte if the law isn’t changed, and they might be three times as angry as the people who support it. But they’re just outnumbered.
Math of this sort plays a role in how and when corporations decide to take a position on a Trump policy or statement. And so cowardice, which you could also call extreme caution in the face of market forces and public sentiment, drives both inaction and, say, a decision to make a highly publicized, one-time donation to the ACLU, condemn a dehumanizing ban that separates families, or pull an All-Star game in a way that would humiliate a state.
You are already seeing this kind of targeting—the strategic manipulation of corporate aversion to controversy and shit press—playing out in anti-Trump boycott campaigns. They may not cut into a company’s short-term bottom line, but they can make for painful press.
There’s precedent for this. As Surowiecki noted at The New Yorker, a study by Brayden King, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, found that “during high-profile boycotts between 1990 and 2005, a company’s stock price fell, on average, every day that the boycott was in the news.” The study also found that “more than a third of the boycotted companies ended up changing their behavior in response to the protest.” This wasn’t because sales dropped significantly—it was because the bad press hurt too much.
CEOs are cowards. It's a rare, beautiful point of consensus in our polarized country. Which means it’s just a matter of determining who scares them more to extract occasional, and often fraught, political victories. And right now, the millions of people who have taken to the streets to resist Trump administration could be in a real position to win more fights than they lose—whether it’s over a book deal or the president's agenda.